Wally Olins – remembered


By Brian Boylan 

Wally started at Wolff Olins in 1965 as a client and then joined us to form a business which for him quickly became a cause and a passion.

For Wally it was never work. Although the work itself was critically important (and very often criticised by him), the business was as much a vehicle to explore, demonstrate and develop what he thought, what he believed.

It was to be a lifelong passion, culminating in the publication of his latest book Brand New, a forward look at the future of what he was central to creating and shaping. Very appropriate. Very Wally – having the final word.

Despite being the so-called ‘suit’ to partner Michael Wolff’s ‘creative’, Wally constantly railed against the corporate world and its conventions, believing in his truth that companies had to be true to their truth – their identity.

In the world in which we operated then – communication and design – Wally believed that if companies were to have a face, it should be a true, honest face, a human face. To Wally, companies were like people, with deeply-rooted personas, traits, characteristics – what now might be referred to as their DNA.

Most of the work of Wolff Olins focused on digging for that truth, articulating it and then developing highly creative non-corporate ways of expressing it. He was the arch-exponent of that.

As the work developed over the next 40 years, Wally’s thinking developed, and the books and lectures and teaching followed. From the early days of The Corporate Personality and Corporate Identity through to the more recent On Brand, The Brand Handbook and Brand New, he never stopped in his pursuit of the never-to-be-found holy grail.

His thinking, his writing, his teaching, his forthright, often outspoken manner had a fundamental effect on shaping how businesses and other institutions came to recognise the nature and significance and value of brand. That in turn helped create a platform for all of us to do what we do today.

At Wolff Olins, we remember Wally for the business he started and for continuing to inspire our never-ending pursuit.

We remember the profession he helped establish and legitimise, and that keeps lots of us busy.

We remember the carefully-crafted books, pamphlets and lectures which gave us a place in the world as well as educating the world.

We remember the work, and the work that went into the work, and the fun we had doing the work, the enormous pride in the work, and the impact of the work.

Most of all we remember Wally the man: a man with big ideas and an even bigger heart.

We will miss him, but we know and he knows he will live on.

He is part of our truth and, just as he never stopped, nor will we.

Brian Boylan is the Chairman of Wolff Olins.  

A new way to make brands

by Robert Jones 

For the last ten Monday afternoons, as winter turned into spring, I’ve been working with my 22 brand leadership students on three real-life client projects. Classroom 2.03 is a bit of a hothouse, literally and metaphorically, so it’s been heady stuff. And week by week, it’s become clearer that the method I’ve been teaching is a million miles away from reality. It’s time to rethink that method – and to learn from the very different world of software development.

I’ve been teaching a linear model: first define your client’s goals, then imagine the brand idea they should stand for, then make an action plan (innovation, communication and internal change), and finally make sure they’ll live happily ever after. I’ve always known this neatness is artificial – but then, as the statistician George Box said, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. For many years, it has to me felt useful.

But the eight weeks this term were very far from linear: cyclical, iterative, even (in a good way) chaotic. Ideas would be pounced on, enthused about, developed, dropped, and then reappear later. Occasionally, the clients’ needs would change. Every week, the three teams would learn something. Some weeks, they would make a huge creative leap forward. Other weeks, they would be seriously stuck. As one student said, ‘We were stuck on stage two… the philosophical thinking… for a very long time… Our ideas only flourished when we moved to stage three… actionable ideas.’ It felt as if moving to practical ideas sooner would make the thinking faster and better.

So as term moved on, I asked myself: can we make a more useful model?

At the same time, back at base at Wolff Olins, we’ve been facing new client pressures. What used to be a 12-month project is now 12 weeks. For clients we’ve been working with in China, this could even be 12 days – that’s their product development cycle. Our old linear method is just too slow.

And over the winter, we’ve started up a new business at Wolff Olins – a school of branding, called Kitchen. Doing a start-up has taught me an unforgettable lesson: get on with it. Don’t wait till the theory is perfect: try something and learn something today. Kitchen is now a live business – and whatever method we followed wasn’t linear.

So the student projects, our clients and Kitchen demand a different model. Maybe the alternative is in front of our noses: the agile software development process used by our tech clients.

‘Agile’ has been around for a decade or more. Its method is rapid prototyping – make something quickly and test it, rather than spending your time planning and designing. Its aim is ‘proof of concept’. Its rhythm is fast: ‘sprints’ of activity. Its management style is ‘lean’: self-organising teams that include the client, rather than formal hierarchies. And its philosophy is the opposite of the traditional top-down ‘waterfall’.

I’m not talking here about capital A agile, but small a: not the full, formal process of the Agile Movement, but agile thinking. Not the letter of the law, but its spirit.

You can sum it all up in a simple diagram. 

So here’s a better way for the students and for us. Not linear but cyclical. Not just thinking but doing too. And there’s a central role for testing, for getting data, for assessing ideas against reality – in a word, for learning.

How would the method work? Imagine something like this: every week, we start with our best hypothesis for the brand idea – the bunch of things we want our client to stand for in people’s minds. We then quickly turn it into some kind of ‘product’, which could be in any of the four quadrants we use (presence, culture, capability and offer). We then test this product, with consumers or client people or external experts, and formulate what we learn from the testing. Finally, we improve the brand idea for the following week. And we repeat until the brand idea feels solid.

The method should be faster than the linear model. It should be more practical, because it forces us to give our ideas form – to break away from the lofty and abstract. It should be more persuasive, since it’s constantly building proof of concept. And it should also be more rigorous, since our ideas are put to the test every week. (In fact, the process is very similar to the scientific method, where the cycle is theory, experiment, data).

So this is how I’ll teach my student projects next year. At Wolff Olins, we’re already using it when clients ask us to do innovation work – we’ve even written a very neat manual on the process for one client. We now need to apply it to brand creation work. Or at least (in the spirit of agile), we need to try it out and learn from it.

There are some big implications. We’ll have to make the client into a full member of the team, not just a workshop participant. We’ll have to be clear what kinds of things we can ‘make’ every week – it won’t be a new piece of software every time. And we’ll have to learn to love data – and yet also not to be ruled by it, not to let it limit our imaginations.

Excitingly, though, this approach could create a new weekly rhythm for everything, speeding up the whole Wolff Olins machine. It’s a way to achieve what I suggested in my post last month, ‘What’s wrong with brand thinking’: to ricochet constantly between architect (‘think’) and handyperson (‘make’). And it’s a way to add a third role to that list, just as essential: the perpetual learner (‘test’).

Thank you for help on this Camilla Grey (@CamillaStore) and Tom Petty (@tp).

Robert Jones is head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia. Follow him @RobertJones2


Say hello to Ije


As of 17th April, he’s our new global CEO.

Born in America, raised in Nigeria and settled in Britain, Ije has been MD of our London office for four years and is now set to lead our global business forward into an exciting new chapter.

“As the relationship between organisations and individuals is pushed forward by new technologies, our role is to help clients find creative ways to build deeper, richer human experiences that have both positive social and commercial impact.

Across the business we’re pushing boundaries and inventing new tools to help our clients be fit for the future. I’m humbled to be a part of that and look forward to building on all of Karl’s tremendous achievements.”

Follow him @onyeije 

Digital identity debated in India


By Mark Bosse

Imagine a future in which every person has a unique digital identity and all of our information lives in the ‘cloud’. Your bank account, tax returns, and even your college degree would be connected to a single number and infinitely easier to manage.

While it may seem like a far off dream even here in the U.S., this was Nandan Nilekani’s vision for India. Former executive of Infosys, one of India’s largest tech companies, Nilekani had hoped India would lead the world in using technology to sidestep social ills such as poverty and corruption.

He gained support from the Government of India to launch Aadhaar in 2010, a program that aimed to assign 1.2 billion Indians a 12-digit digital identity that can be verified instantly online.

There are many lessons to be learned from Aadhaar, which made headlines this week when a controversial Supreme Court ruling threatened the success of the program. At Wolff Olins we tend to embrace technology and all its benefits with open arms. Some might say we envision a world, much like Nandan Nilekani, where technology makes things better, swifter, and more equitable for us all.

India – where hundreds of millions of citizens cannot prove their own identity and many aren’t even certain of their own age – would help put the bottom billion on the map and usher in a new age of technological advancement and social equity.

Aadhaar (“foundation” in Hindi) relies on biometric technology such as fingerprint and iris scans to make sure that India’s least fortunate citizens no longer have to rely on physical ID cards, which are easily lost or stolen, to identify themselves. 

Using their Aadhaar ID, Indians can also cast a vote in an election, receive social security benefits directly, and even take out money from ‘micro-ATMs’, regardless of whether they live in bustling Mumbai or in a remote village in Aranachal Pradesh.

The technology is truly gamechanging. India spends 60 billion dollars a year on subsidy programs to provide basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, and petroleum to its citizens. But a lack of infrastructure and criss-crossed incentives make it difficult for this money to reach those in need, and instead it ends up lacing the pockets of corrupt officials as it trickles down.

The aspirations for Aadhaar go further: gender equality, equal access to education (most likely through MOOCs), perhaps even a digital reputation system for small-scale bartering much like on Amazon or eBay. Less tangibly, the technology could also empower many Indians for the first time to think of themselves as individuals, rather than merely as part of a caste, religion, tribe, or village.

Already over 600 million people have been registered, meaning nearly one out of every two Indians has an Aadhaar ID. But the pace at which newcomers sign up is likely to slow.

On March 24th, the Indian Supreme Court directed the union government to withdraw all orders that make Aadhaar IDs mandatory for receiving government subsidies. The Court also ordered the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which manages the Aadhaar program under the auspices of Nilekani, not to share any personal information with any third party without the permission of the individual.

In effect, this means that India may never have every citizen accounted for via Aadhaar, and that the 600 million citizens who have been late to sign up may lose their incentive to do so.

The ruling is backed by strong lobbyists who say that the project encroaches on peoples’ right to privacy. They argue that such an interconnected system might leave Indians vulnerable to exploitation by corporations or other parties looking to mine their data.

There are also those who fundamentally oppose such drastic social change, those who benefit from the current corrupt system, and those who see little promise in the use of technology to alleviate society’s problems.

What happened this week is a reminder that, for all that technology offers, there are still other factors at play in our world. It’s never easy to take risks, sidestep the status quo, and actually create something gamechanging. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.

But when it does happen, it’s truly brilliant. 

Mark Bosse is an associate strategist at Wolff Olins New York.

Leapfrogging the West.


By Stefano Ferro

Too often in the Middle East, we see locally born and bred companies trying to copy successful international brands or using them as the only benchmarks for successful branding. What they fail to realise is the opportunity they have to use brand much more strategically by drawing on pre-existing deep cultural instincts that businesses should do good. They might even have certain strategic advantages that allow them to leapfrog the West.

Doing good, social impact, giving back are all terms that have recently become a focus for businesses in the West with a plethora of different models for social impact appearing across all sectors.

In our 2012 Game Changers report we looked at how “more and more businesses are choosing to explicitly link their economic decisions to the value created through environmental, social, labour and governance efforts”. Unilever, IBM, GSK, Nike, Little Sun and FutureLearn are all investing heavily in actively creating positive social impact.

The Scandinavian model of social ‘alignment’ is probably one that has shown most promise. VELUX is a fair example of the kind of philosophy that drives them. They say: “our solutions create better living environments. So does our way of doing business. By engaging respectfully with the people we work with; by giving back to the societies we do business in; and by working responsibly with the natural resources we all depend on… We create value for society and a profit for our business”.

Another model – favoured by politicians, rock stars and some big businesses – is to set up foundations that give back and do good. “We focus on big problems where we can make the greatest impact. To bring about the kind of change that can give all people the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives, our investments must be highly strategic and focused on results. We take risks, we push for new solutions, and we believe in the transformative power of science and technology”, say the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

While these models for social impact are still getting off the ground in the West, Middle Eastern businesses have actually always had a strategic advantage in this area - driven by Islamic principles. It is fundamental to the DNA of Middle Eastern businesses to do good! The challenge for them now is to use brand strategically to take ‘doing good’ from a passive obligation to a more active, purpose driven outcome.

Noor Bank is using brand to spearhead a number of initiatives in order to deliver on its vision to be a catalyst of the Islamic economy. The Deputy Group CEO of the Noor Investment Group, Dr. Ahmed Al Janahi, recently said: “The cooperation with AMAF, which is aligned with Dubai’s vision to shape the future of the Islamic economy, is in line with our strategy to give back to society through support for charities and foundations in the UAE. We will provide expertise…”

Then there’s Majid Al Futtaim, a leading shopping mall, retail and leisure business across the Middle East and North Africa, which has a very clear mission: ‘to create great moments for everyone, every day’. But this goes beyond the shopping malls or leisure parks and through the Majid Al Futtaim Foundation the business plays an active role in giving back to society.

“Majid Al Futtaim is engaged in creating a better future for the UAE by providing healthcare and education assistance to underprivileged and marginalised sectors.” They will work with leading international academic institutions to help develop the first national level institution providing best in class education and training for the sector.

And there are many more organisations like Noor Bank and Majid Al Futtaim going beyond their core business and working with society on all levels. The challenge for others in the region is how they can make this natural propensity to do good an integral part of their brand platforms. If they succeed, these brands can spearhead, champion and deliver on those principles as part and parcel of their brand rather than a behind the scenes afterthought.

Ultimately, there is a huge opportunity for Middle Eastern brands to draw on deep local, historic, and cultural instincts about playing a positive social role to create a sustained strategic advantage across all their key stakeholders.

What this means is that people at the very top of these businesses need to embrace this more strategic view of brand as a way of attracting and keeping talent and as a way of guaranteeing their companies’ longer-term legacy. If they can do that, they can then become authentic global brands, and can leapfrog the West in the process.

Stefano Ferro is managing director of Wolff Olins Dubai. 

Do the right thing


By Neridah Leembruggen

Recently I got a dog, well a puppy actually. He is a bundle of bounding energy, cuteness and curiosity.

He still has his baby teeth and he likes to try everything by tasting it with his mouth (it also eases the pain in his gums). Everything is new to him and there is no shortage of things for him to try. Particularly when we are in our communal garden or walking down the street. Not just sticks, grass, leaves, rocks but cigarette butts, wet wipes, chewing gum, empty fast food containers, cans, plastic bottles and on and on it goes.

It’s not that I didn’t notice it before, but when you hear yourself saying “no” and “drop it” every three seconds or less you begin to realise that there is an astonishing amount of rubbish out there. It made me wonder, where is this all coming from? Why isn’t anyone picking it up?

It would probably be true to say that more of the things we consume these days come in containers that become rubbish – salad, soup, sandwiches, ready meals, water, wipes, cans, bottles, even simple fruit and vegetables. I mean I only need to look in my own bins after a delivery from Ocado to see that practically everything I have bought has come in some sort of bespoke packaging.

But despite all the bins and recycling bins the councils now provide us, the streets are still thoroughly littered. It can’t be all the fault of urban foxes, can it?

I grew up in Australia in the 1980s and as such have been affected by one of the most successful cultural movements of all time. It was catchy tunes like this that we heard time and again in TV adverts urging me to “Do the Right Thing” and put it in the bin. I felt and still feel personally responsible for my rubbish. I wouldn’t dream of leaving something in the street.

Given how fragmented our media consumption now is, I don’t think throwing lots of money at some big ads will be enough. And signing a petition online feels too passive - this requires real action from individuals.

So what is our modern day equivalent to inspiring a movement? And who should we look towards to instigate it?

In the age of austerity with funding cuts to local councils I can’t help but think it is the FMCG brands that create the packaging that becomes the rubbish could have a genuine role to play here.

Why not think of the life cycle of the packaging as their responsibility from its creation, to the shelf, to our homes and finally how we can dispose of it. I am not talking about a well hidden little line on the packaging that says “please dispose of this responsibly” (which is about effective as saying ”Mum, please don’t read my diary”) but some real initiatives that are funded by the brands. 

Why would brands do this? Well, becoming a platform for a genuinely responsible approach to our environment in a way that improves our daily lives will make these brands so much more useful and valuable to us. They’ll become authentic, which might just make us love them a little more. And we all know how powerful love is.

Neridah Leembruggen is a senior account manager at Wolff Olins. 

We’re always on the lookout for design interns in London

We’re looking for brilliant, passionate and creative people to join our design team in London for a three-month internship.

During the internship you’ll get to work with our teams and explore, experiment and collaborate on a wide range of design work.

Ideally, you’ll be a 3rd year student or a recent graduate. You must have great graphic design skills and experience in Adobe Creative Suite. It would be really useful if you have strong digital and interaction skills: coding, digital prototyping, interface design or UX, as well as an interest in motion graphics and animation. You must be energetic, eager to learn and curious about the world around you, as well great at collaborating and up for any challenge.  But most of all you must be a brilliant creative thinker who’s full of ideas.

Send your cv, portfolio and a short email telling us why you’re right for Wolff Olins to peoplelondon@wolffolins.com - don’t forget to put ‘Design Internship 2014’ in the title too. 

Looking forward to hearing from you. 

Give it a go

Meet Jonas Schwarz Lausten.

Jonas is a Nordic boutique hotel entrepreneur in Nigeria. He’s responsible for developing Abuja’s top two hotels on Trip Advisor.

When he’s not disrupting the hospitality industry, Jonas acts as a new business manager for Seismonaut, a strategic innovation and concept consultancy, with offices in Copenhagen, Aarhus and Abuja.

I met Jonas, along with Seismonaut’s managing director and co-founder Anders Mogensen, for breakfast at the Radisson Blue, a hotel overlooking the Lagos lagoon. We spent the morning swapping stories over our unexpected connections to Nigeria and the process of setting up a business here as an oyibo?—?‘foreigner.’

So Jonas, why should someone from outside start a business in Nigeria?

One, great business. Two, great people. Three, great weather. Four, it’s an adventure?—?a new and up-and-coming market with so much potential.

It requires risk and a lot of hard work, but if you’re up for the challenge, you should definitely start a business here.

If not to start a business just to get inspired here. There’s so many things going on right now?—?from new restaurants to new hotels to new agencies to new ways of thinking about art and music. If you’re considering a new market, come to Nigeria, come to Africa.

Taste the food, shake hands with people, look them in the eye, have discussions with them, you’ll learn that they live the pretty much the same lives that we do in the West.

You guys are from Denmark, what’s your connection to Nigeria?

My dad worked in Nigeria, and Anders, our MD at Seismonaut, grew up in Nigeria and at one point, he met the former vice-president Atiku Abubakar’s daughter at her wedding. In Nigeria, you present the gifts to the father and Anders speaks fluent Hausa, so he went up to the vice-president and said, “Thank you for welcoming me to this wonderful party.” And Atiku asked, “Why do you speak my language?” then they started to talk. Anders presented a few ideas and talked about the digital services we offer at Seismonaut and a few days later they had a meeting in Abuja. Long story short, we ended up working on the media strategy for his election campaign in 2011. He was very much inspired by Obama, and having a more transparent campaign. That was the beginning of our business in Nigeria, and instead of bringing the money back to Denmark, we invested it back in the local economy.

What have you done since that campaign? You’ve set up Nordic hotels in Nigeria, which to me, sounds like an oxymoron.

When we were looking to set up in Nigeria, we couldn’t really find an office space. It was very expensive, we thought, ‘We’re sick and tired of paying $300-$400 a night for a pretty random hotel with no internet connection, no service, a run-down, moldy and smelly room.’ We thought, ‘Why not let’s give it a go?’ Let’s find a space where we can set up our office, rent space to other players, set up rooms?—?and call it the Nordic Villa. After few months, we became number 1 on Trip Advisor in Abuja, we were beating the Hilton, the Sheraton, and we thought okay this is actually good, we can do this. We expanded and now we have 2 boutique hotels in Abuja now.

This is a series of conversations and essays about entrepreneurship in Lagos. You can read Melissa’s full collection of conversations and essays on entrepreneurship in Lagos here.

Melissa Andrada (@themelissard) heads up Kitchen from Wolff Olins, a school for ambitious leaders who want to build businesses that change the world.